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Interview with Levon Chilingirian and Carole Presland

May 3, 2016

A much-anticipated performance at the festival will bring acclaimed violinist Levon Chilingirian and world-renowned pianist Carole Presland to the Old Library at Dulwich College.

Levon Chilingirian OBE is professor of violin and chamber music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal Academy of Music, and the Royal Northern College of Music and Carole Presland is a professor at both the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. They will perform a thrilling programme to celebrate the strong cultural exchange we continue to enjoy with Europe. In anticipation of a memorable afternoon we asked Levon and Carole to talk us through the pieces they have chosen to perform and to share their experiences as global musicians.

Could you talk us through the pieces you have chosen to perform when you appear at the Dulwich Festival.

LC: The Handel Sonata was one of the very first pieces I learnt in Cyprus. Having recently had the rare privilege of seeing the manuscript from which the Composer directed the first performance of the Messiah in Dublin, I was reminded of the supreme genius that he was, much admired by Beethoven and his adoring English audience. A great and uncomplicated work, beautifully integrating the two instruments.

I was happy to include Grieg’s Third Sonata because of a long-standing association with Norway through many summer courses for the Norwegian chamber Music Association and particularly with the close link I established with Grieg’s music by creating a new edition of his unfinished Second Quartet which was subsequently recorded by the Chilingirian Quartet. It is indeed appropriate to celebrate Grieg’ music alongside the exhibition of wonderful paintings and prints by his contemporary Nicolai Astrup at the Picture Gallery!

Elgar’s Sonata was a piece I first studied with Hugh Bean in 1968. Hugh’s teacher Albert Sammons was an eloquent interpreter of Elgar’s music and therefore I was privy to many wonderful insights into the mood and style of this late work.

Carole PreslandCP: I know that all these pieces have a special, personal significance to Levon, so I have left him largely to answer this. However, with the EU referendum build up forming the background to this concert, it is certainly interesting to feature works by Handel (a European who settled in London), Elgar – with his magnificent and uniquely English voice, and Grieg – a Norwegian Sonata, strongly nationalistic in flavour.

Your performance will celebrate the strong cultural exchange we enjoy with Europe. In the lead up to the EU referendum do you think the cultural benefits of being part of the EU are often overlooked in the debate?

LC: When I started my concert career in the late 1960’s it was often a major undertaking to perform in countries on Continental Europe. Apart from the many forms to be filled regarding taxes and health insurance cover, we had the labyrinth of so many different currencies to deal with! At the height of the Cold War, there were also strong echoes of the entrenched divisions of Europe since the end of the Second World War. Gradually these barriers have been removed through our membership of the European Union and it is wonderful that there is total freedom for Musicians to work throughout our diverse continent. This very freedom of movement has been one of the main reasons why London has become such a great cultural capital. So many of the most outstanding teachers and performers choose to live in the UK and therefore ensuring that the most talented students also congregate here.

It would indeed be a short-sighted move to detach ourselves from the close links we have with our EU neighbours. Our lives are enriched enormously through being an integral part of Europe.

CP: The cultural benefits are of course huge, and I regard myself as an ardent European who has been very fortunate to work in a profession where I have been able to foster and enjoy strong cultural links with the rest of Europe. However, currently many citizens face major struggles in our society. Some struggle to find jobs, wonder whether they can afford to live off any employment that they do find and many can only dream of finding an affordable home to rent, let alone buy. With so many complex and ongoing economic problems under discussion I can certainly understand that the cultural strand will not be at the forefront of the EU debate.

You have played concerts all over the world – do you find that audiences respond differently to your music depending on where you are in the world?

LC: Generally, audience responses depend on how well they feel connected to the performers and to the repertoire being presented. A great Hall with fine acoustics is also a strong ally in encouraging memorable concerts! Some audiences seem not to be listening as quietly as others, but this can be deceptive because they are likely to be much more actively involved with no pre-conceptions of how one should behave!

CP: Definitely national characteristics seem to vary. Personally I have found audiences in Italy to be particularly enthusiastic and overt in their response to music , and it is also very noticeable that the make up of audiences in many European countries is rather more wide ranging than in the UK. Speaking again of Italy for example, children formed a larger part of the audiences I encountered at concerts, and classical music appeared to be encouraged as part of their national culture from a young age.

Do you have a favourite venue, one which you’d choose ahead of all the venues you’ve ever played?

LC: There are so many great Halls in the world that it is impossible to have a clear preference. It is like being asked which is your favourite composer or piece! Luckily there are very fine halls in all corners of the world!

CP: Speaking personally, and to be unashamedly patriotic for the moment, I find it hard to better the Wigmore Hall, which has the most fantastic acoustic and which manages to feel intimate, whilst still housing a large audience. It has a very special heritage and atmosphere, as of course do so many other great concert halls, but as a British pianist who always dreamed of one day playing there when I was a child, it has always felt like a special privilege to perform there. Having said that, I once played Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor in the very beautiful, small hall of the Musikverein in Vienna – the room in which that particular piece received its very first performance- and that was a quite remarkable, thrilling and memorable experience.

You have both worked extensively in nurturing and mentoring young musicians. What advice would you give any young musicians seeking to embark on a career in music today?

LC: I have been involved with teaching for almost 40 years. I am happy to say that young musicians have many more opportunities in study options and in establishing careers. The world has indeed become much more accessible and I see a bright future for the next generations!

CP: Music can be an incredibly rewarding profession, but it can also be challenging and extremely tough for even the most gifted and dedicated of young musicians to pursue. I would personally only advise choosing music as a career if you love it to the point that you simply cannot imagine doing anything else with your life. Passion and commitment, alongside talent, are essential. I would also advise young musicians to try to develop their inner core of confidence. Performing is not about us as individuals, it is instead about communicating (as best we can) the vision of the composers we play. The ideal is to be neither artificially bolstered by praise nor needlessly destroyed by criticism! I would say act as your own best and worst critic, be led by the composer and try to always be true to your own musical beliefs and artistic ideals, whatever reaction it might provoke!

Details and tickets for the recital with Levon Chilingirian and Carole Presland are available here